In his debut memoir, When They Tell You To Be Good, Prince Shakur
takes the reader on a journey through the world as well as his mind.
While traveling the world and participating in different activist
movements, Prince deals with racism, homophobia, and his grief over a
dead father he never got to know. Plagued by questions surrounding the
circumstances of his father’s death, Prince sees his father’s shadow
in everything that he does, grappling with uncertainty at every step of
But from this introspection comes revelation. As Prince moves from place
to place, his understanding of both the world and himself continues to
grow and evolve. He sees the oppressive systems in the world for what
they are and the toxic masculinity they create, but he also discovers
the kind of man he can be by rejecting those systems.
By the end of the book, Prince’s journey is one that emphasizes the
value in exploring one’s uncertainties, but also the courage that it
takes to grapple with the answers one might find at the end of it all.
When They Tell You To Be Good is available from Tin House.
To start, I wanted to ask you about the structure of the memoir
itself. The memoir often jumps back and forth in both time and location,
focusing on both at the start of each section. Given the nature of
memoir, this isn’t unusual, but what stands out is the way you use it
to frame the narrative. How did you decide on structuring the memoir so
that it had such a specific focus on time and place?
A lot of the memoir’s format came to fruition while editing with Hanif
Abdurraqib. While writing this book, part of me saw it as a travelogue,
then Hanif suggested we arrange the book into parts with location
labels. I loved this change because it can show the reader just how far
being black and queer and radical can take you in the world, as well as
where queer displacement takes you while you’re searching for meaning;
and how these realities can be deeply impactful in comforting and
I also love that noting all the times and places visited gives the book
a sense of scale to show that these issues, like anti-blackness or
homophobia or colonialism, can follow you wherever you go in a variety
You brought up the idea of how the realities one can find along that
journey can be impactful, and it immediately brings to mind all the
different realities that were brought to the surface during your own
journey. Over the course of your travels, you keep having multiple
moments where you’re realizing something deeply important, whether
it’s about race, activism, yourself, or your own family history. Can
you talk about what went into writing revelatory moments like that? How
does the hindsight perspective that memoir provides impact the
reconstruction of these scenes?
On one level, I wanted to show that travel doesn’t always lead to easy
or tidy conclusions about how we fit into the world. Sometimes it can be
quite painful, which is why I’m super interested in how being changed by
experiences in an environment so far away from “home” can
reconceptualize what I think home is. When our comforts and vices are
gone, how do we survive or liberate ourselves? This question matters so
much to black people, immigrants, queer people, and radicals; all are
groups I’m deeply invested in. Those intersections can be hard but also
give me the courage to be as honest as I can when I meet the page.
Thinking of and writing these moments of revelation gave me the
understanding that emotion dictates memory, setting, and how we move
through time. The craft element is how explicit we are in these
distortions and how some distortions bring us closer to a personal
I’ve always felt that one of the most powerful things about memoir is
the effect that honest reflection can have, not just for ourselves as
writers but especially for the readers who can connect with the
experience. Given all of the different groups that you’re passionate
about, I can see why it’s so important to you that you show that
honesty for both yourself and them.
On the topic of intersection, one of the things I admire about this
book is how layered the narrative is. It’s a book about race,
queerness, activism, family, the search for answers to questions that
all of those things can bring up, and so much more. All these points
connect in one way or another over the course of the book. Does the
connection between these themes make it easier to convey meaning through
them? Or can that connectivity sometimes complicate what you’re trying
These “connections” in the book are things that I muse over all the
time. I think the job of reflection and writing is to place life
experiences into an accessible or subjective form, and to find new
avenues of meaning through how we explain ourselves. So essentially
writing about these things helped give them meaning through me
attempting to find language to explain these losses, forms of grief, and
triumphs in ways I haven’t before. As for when the writing became
complicated, those moments were opportunities to remove the ego out of
what I thought I needed to say and instead honor what felt like the most
honest thing to say.
Another topic I wanted to discuss was the recurrence and portrayal of
death in the book. In some ways it acts as a character, so to speak, as
much as it is a force of nature. It’s following behind you constantly,
making its presence felt even when it isn’t directly mentioned. It’s
there with you from the very first sentence and lingers over the rest of
the book like a shadow. What went into your decision to personify death
in your book the way that you did?
I wanted the reader to be aware that my relationship with death
throughout the book is also about my relationship with life. As a queer,
black person, I’ve always understood that death is a lot more tangible
for me than for people with more privileged backgrounds. I find courage
in how many queer, black, or radical people confront the reality of
death, and choose to live as their most liberated selves anyway.
In terms of exploring my relationship with my father, it felt important
to personify death because death is what separates us. My fear of death
is also what I must confront to have a relationship with him not
beholden to fear. To see how death manifests itself in my life is also
to see the ways that he has loomed in my life as well.
I definitely see what you mean when you say that it’s also about your
relationship with life. By giving such an apparent sense of physicality
and personhood to death, it lets the more positive moments, the ones
where you’re happy or in love or fighting for the things you believe
in, stand out just as much. As a result, I think that the duality that
these two things form is conveyed very meaningfully throughout your
On the topic of your father, I find it interesting how, given that
your relationship with him is kept separate as a result of death, the
presence he has in the book is very similar to it. Like death, he acts
as an underlying presence the entire time, and while there are so many
scenes and moments of self-reflection that aren’t about him, you always
find ways to tie things back to your father, either through an idea of
him that forms in your head or through a reveal relating to the
mysteries about him. When you were writing, how did you go about
balancing when and where to make these ties back to your father?
This is a big question because the book largely started because I
wanted to write through what it’s like to miss someone you never really
knew, and the complexities of that longing when mingled with
masculinity, pain, and romanticism. I think navigating my relationship
with my father throughout my life has forced me to reckon with death and
also address the nihilism that his loss sometimes gives me. Whenever
I’m in danger, achieving a life milestone, or witnessing grief, my mind
wanders to him. So in every moment in the book where his presence shows
up, that was real and meaningful. So essentially, writing those moments
was an act of vulnerability and truth-telling.
Towards the end of the book, it’s revealed to you that you have an
uncle, Cedric, where you then spend time talking about his life and
death in the next section. However, unlike the rest of the book, you
take the time to include a section full of excerpts of Cedric’s journal
from when he was alive. What went into the decision to include these
snapshots from Cedric’s life into the book?
It felt important to have some part of the book be as honest about
Cedric’s voice as possible. Sometimes when we discover intense things
about other people, we try to enter their perspective as artists. I
didn’t want to assume Cedric’s voice, but instead, place the tragic
strangeness of our lives alongside each other by placing his writing
alongside mine. A sort of conversation.
“Tragic strangeness” is certainly a beautiful way of describing the
similarities the two of you share between your lives. I definitely think
that by placing his writing next to yours as a sort of conversation, as
you put it, it creates a much more impactful connection between you
I want to shift focus to something that connects not only you and
Cedric, but every other aspect of yourself, your life, and the people in
it. Throughout the book, you often discuss the oppressive systems that
act as a breeding ground for racism, homophobia, and toxic masculinity,
and the ways that it has shaped the lives of you, Cedric, and countless
others. Between your story, Cedric’s, and everyone else around you,
what is the one thing you hope people take away from your criticisms of
these systems and the lasting harm that they bring?
A great question that I’ve thought of a lot! I want to develop deeper
language around men’s complicity in and understandings of the impacts of
the patriarchy. There is so much work to be done by men about how we
crawl our way out of the “soul murder” (as bell hooks coins it) of
heteronormative masculinity and some of that work starts with trying to
tell deeper truths about the ways that we police ourselves and can harm
others as men. If my book does a small piece of anything, I hope it’s
part of working towards treating a gentler masculinity that demands a
better world for everyone through thought and action, and to know that
failing to live up to the traditional ideal of what a man is can
actually be a beautiful victory towards love, resistance, and justice.
Incredibly well put, and I think your book is certainly successful in
getting those points across. I especially agree with your point about
failing to live up to the traditional ideal of manhood. Just because we
may not live up to society’s expectations doesn’t mean we have to stop
trying to make ourselves the best man we can be, and finding that path
for ourselves can be liberating in so many ways.
Now that this book is out, is there anything else that you’re working
on? What’s next for you?
I’m actually on the last pass edits for a novel for my literary agents
at the moment; a sort of coming-of-age set against the early days of the
AIDS crisis. Writing it has gotten me through the pandemic.
To close out this interview, I want to ask: Is there any advice that
you would like to share for other black, queer writers such as
My advice is to continue to push the boundaries. Live life in strange
ways and like queer and black people already do, find new worlds to live
in that do better and feel safe. Making art from this place is hard and
a liberation but you deserve it.
Prince Shakur is a Jamaican-American writer currently living in New York
City. His works have appeared in Teen Vogue, Vice, Catapult,
Afropunk, and more. He’s the founder of Millennial Writer Life, a
newsletter that shares writing resources, the host of the podcast The
Creative Hour, and his media works have been recognized by Society for
Features Journalism and GLAAD. He also his own YouTube channel where he
talks about his life as a writer and his travels, and he can be found on
Twitter as @prshakur.